When thinking about retirement, the most important thing is to start saving early. However, it’s also important to realize that saving is not enough on its own. You need to plan strategically for how you will fund your retirement years, which means considering all forms of income and how to maximize them.

When you pay into Social Security, you’ll receive a retirement benefit in an amount that depends on several factors. When you know about these factors early in your working life, you can plan around them and maximize your retirement income. And of course, even if you’re near retirement, it’s also important to understand how Social Security works, so you can pick the right time to start drawing your benefit.

 

What to Know about Social Security Benefits When You’re Starting Your Career

Your Social Security benefit is primarily determined by your earned income during your working years. In general, the more you earn, the higher your benefit will be. However, there is a maximum Social Security benefit. In 2019, this maximum is $2,861 per month. No one can receive more than that, but many people will end up receiving much less, mainly due to a couple of key factors. One of these key factors is their work history.

The federal government calculates the final benefit you receive based on your lifetime earnings, averaging your salary over the 35 years during which you earned the highest amount. The Average Wage Indexing Series is used to account for inflation in this calculation. However, it is critical to know that if you work fewer than 35 years, your salary is essentially considered “$0” each year that you’re short of 35. This will reduce your average salary calculation and therefore your benefit. It’s true that you only need to work for one decade to qualify for Social Security, but you’ll need to put in at least 35 years to reap the maximum benefit.

The second factor that can bring down your Social Security benefit is when you claim it. You’ll need to work until your full retirement age to get the maximum benefit. The full retirement age depends on when you were born. The government has increased the full retirement age from 65 to 67, although the increase is happening incrementally over a 22-year period that began in 2000. For people born in 1960 and later, the full retirement age is 67. Check the Social Security Administration’s chart to view your full retirement age.

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That being said, you can claim your Social Security benefit at 62. However, that benefit will be lower than it would be if you waited until full retirement age. Basically, your benefit will be reduced a certain percentage for each month before your retirement age. If you were born in 1960 or later and your full retirement age is therefore 67, you can claim your benefit at age 62, but that benefit would be reduced by about 30%.

After your full retirement age, the Social Security benefit actually increases incrementally up to 70 years of age. Thus, if you want to maximize your Social Security benefits, don’t claim any until you are 70. Past 70, no further increases occur, so it’s time to cash out.

Understanding these rules early in your career can help you plan for the future effectively. However, it is important to understand that people often need to claim the benefit before reaching age 70—and that’s okay. In an ideal world, you would be able to hold off until 70, but life has a habit of getting in the way.

Similarly, it is important to maximize your earnings for 35 years, but within reason. If you take a year or two off, you may want to plan to work another year or two, so that you don’t have those zero-salary years included in your benefit calculation. The 35-year average also makes it possible to eliminate some low-earning years, such as those right after high school or college.

 

Your Income and Earnings in the Years Before and After Retirement

Two other important considerations have to do with the years leading up to and following retirement. One concerns penalties: people in early and full retirement have earning limits beyond which their benefit is affected. Currently, early retirees can earn $17,640 in gross wages or net earnings without penalty, but every $2 earned above this amount will result in a $1 reduction from your benefit. In the year leading up to your full retirement age, you can bring in $46,920 before you’re penalized. For every $3 earned above this amount, $1 will be subtracted from your benefit. Once you reach your full retirement age, your earnings will not affect your benefits.

The other important consideration is taxes. Up to 85 percent of your payout can be subject to federal taxes, depending on your filing status and overall income. If your combined income falls between $25,000 and $34,000 for single filers or $32,000 and $44,000 for joint filers, you’ll have to pay taxes on up to 50% of your Social Security income. Above these ranges, you’ll be taxed on 85 percent of your benefit.

Given all this, you may want to think about reducing your overall taxable income in retirement. By distributing funds evenly over the span of a few years without sudden increases, you can decrease your adjusted gross income, but this will require some planning.

 

How Married Couples Should Strategize for Social Security

Another important consideration is the strategies married couples should use when it comes to claiming Social Security benefits. In general, there are two primary strategies. You can claim your own benefit, or delay this claim and receive half of your spouse’s payout. Your marriage needs to be at least 10 years old to qualify for this strategy. This approach can be especially helpful if one spouse was a particularly high earner.

Generally, one spouse will begin receiving payout earlier, whether at 62 or full retirement age, while the other waits until age 70 to maximize their benefit. Typically, the spouse who earned more delays their claim.